“Tell us your phobias and we will tell you what you are afraid of.”
Robert Benchley)

Rule 18: Mark Room.

There.  I said it.  It strikes fear into the hearts of countless sailboat racers.  It even looks awful in the Racing Rules of Sailing book, doesn’t it?  RULE 18!!!!  Yes, yes, you’ve read it, and you’ve tried to study it until your eyes glaze over, but how many times have you found yourself in the fray, doubting your memory of that long and intricate rule, having battled the other boats to set up for the coveted inside overlap at the zone?  Or, worse, what do you do when a disagreement arises, involving you and other skippers who may or may not really understand the rule?  I’m always amazed at how many sailors are out there who don’t seem to know that the Rules get a nice little update every four years.

So, your nightmare might go something like this: there you are, fetching the mark, on starboard tack, when suddenly, a port tacker tacks right in front of you, in the zone, and you have to bail out to avoid hitting their transom.  Ugh.  But, in the heat of the moment, you second-guess yourself – “Can they do that?” you wonder.  “Should I protest?” you wonder.  So, once you get back to shore, you consult with your handy Racing Rules book to try and figure it out.  And all it tells you is that the boat who tacked right in front of you “shall not cause the other boat to sail above close-hauled to avoid contact or prevent the other boat from passing the mark on the required side.”  Oh.  Hmmm. And then you think to yourself, “Well, if they were actually finished tacking and could make the argument that they were on the wind again, did I, then, in that very millisecond before I was going to smash into the back of their boat, actually become the “keep clear” boat?”  Confusing, right?  Certainly not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure!  When in doubt, I always say: “remember Rule 14!” – that’s the really important one about avoiding contact with other boats.

Or, what about that moment (mine happened way more recently than I would like to admit) when you finally understand that if you’re set up a little wide of the leeward mark, ready to gybe over so you can do a nice, smooth approach for the mark rounding, you’re actually overlapped (and not on the inside!) with pretty much the entire world, and — even more disturbing — since you’ve been hanging out over on that side of the course the whole way, you’ve  probably been overlapped (and not on the inside!) with much of the fleet during the entire downwind leg.  And, no, don’t even try to go in there first – even if you are going faster. . .  Power up plan B.  You have one, right?

And what about at the finish?  Do you really have to give the other guy room to cross, or can you squeeze ’em out at the pin end?  Is the pin actually a mark, anyway?  How many of you have had this discussion in your head (or with your crew, under your breath, so the boat mere inches away from you can’t hear), while battling for a narrow win (or loss) at the finish?  Heck, I even have a rules book on my boat, but let’s just say that by the time you realize there’s a problem of this magnitude, it’s a little late to be flipping through a book, n’est-ce pas?  Plus, you’ll probably want your crew looking outside of the boat, rather than in a book,  because you’re gonna need all the help you can get to extricate yourself from whatever stupid situation you’ve gotten yourself into this time.  Preferably without hurting anyone.

Well.  If any of this sounds excruciatingly familiar to you, I have some hopeful news.  This will change your life, I promise!  All you have to do to cure yourself of the dreaded “Rule 18 Phobia” is to check out my friend Judith Krimski’s blog post on this very subject.  Her explanation is the best one I’ve ever seen on Rule 18, with really excellent diagrams and easy-to-understand explanations of some of those trickier “Wait, what?” situations.

Can you guess my Rules goal this summer?  Yep, that’s right — to rock Rule 18!  But let’s hope other sailors aspire to this, too, because you know what?  Rule 18 doesn’t really work unless everyone knows the Rule.  I should know.  I’ve found out the hard way.  Don’t I always?

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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